"The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism
By Ross King
Walker & Company; $28
The Judgment of Paris chronicles more than the decade between the scandalous Salon des Refusés in 1863 and the first Impressionist showing in 1874; it meticulously details the dramatic political, social and artistic developments of the closing decades of 19th century France. Ross King paints his own vivid picture, one featuring the legendary cast of the tumultuous time: Zola, Baudelaire, Whistler, Hugo, Monet, Degas, Napoleon III. But they are mere background figures for this pseudo-dual biography of what he dubs “the two poles of art” during the age: Ernest Meissonier, the most successful, acclaimed and famous history painter of the period, and Édouard Manet, derided in his early days for the “obscene” painting “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” but later credited as the father of Impressionism.
Contrasting the careers of Meissonier and Manet while the contentious, phlegmatic Salon held sway over every artist’s livelihood, King illustrates not only the reversal of fortune of the two artists, but also art’s progression from Napoleonic Romanticism through its struggles with Realism to the first appearance of Impressionism within the social and political contexts of the Second Empire at a time when the art of politics was firmly entwined with the politics of art. Paris was the center of the artistic world, and art electrified and divided the nation as definitively as Bonapartism and Republicanism.
With the dramatic flair of a novelist and the painstakingly documented detail of a historian, King brings to life the seminal period of the transitioning art scene. The compelling narrative takes the reader along on the tragic voyage through the Franco-Prussian war as seen through the eyes of the painters who survived and portrayed it while their artistic fate hung in the balance, to be decided by governmental agents, art critics and the people of Paris.
Any lover of art history will find this an engrossing read, filled with minute details to be savored. But more than just art history, this splendid tale brings to life an era, a transition in thought and the coalescence of a movement as Paris and the entire world prepared to enter a new century on the verge of modernity.